Ten years ago, I met Douglas Coupland, author of Hey Nostradamus and Girlfriend in a Coma (my favorite novels of his). This was in San Francisco, at The Booksmith on Haight Street, where he was promoting Hey Nostradamus. We talked a bit about writing, and he told me: keep writing, but don’t publish anything until you’re 30. Once you’re 30, everything you’re learning and experiencing now will fall into place and that’s when you’ll be ready to be a writer.
He turned out to be right.
For close to a decade, I tried my hand at dozens of short stories, two completed novels, a handful of aborted manuscripts, music journalism, and poetry – much of it terrible, some of it good, none of it outstanding. Meanwhile, I lived life. I suffered and rejoiced. I made a lot of money and lost a lot of money. I lost other things too. But I gained experience.
It seems trite to say that experience made me a better writer; however, there are two very specific ways in which Douglas Coupland’s advice has helped me.
First, I became more compassionate. Riding the highs and lows of life and hitting rock bottom a few times taught me that everyone is in this mess of a life, in “the great pity of a person’s life on this earth” as Denis Johnson put it, together. And this helped me understand people better, as well as my own self in relation to those people. As a result, a sad story was no longer just sad to me — I now knew why it was sad. What’s more, I felt it.
Secondly, I became more patient as a writer. I went from writing short fiction to novellas to full-fledged novels. I don’t know how to explain this – perhaps my brain learned to look at the big picture of a story, allowing me to sustain several story lines and character developments at once rather than focusing on a short burst of inspiration. I’m still a fast writer – first drafts usually only take me a few months – but I put in a lot more time before and after these first drafts.
For example, next week I will be meeting with a handful of publishers who have expressed an interest in what will hopefully be my debut novel. I wrote the first version of that book in five weeks. Then I spent three years revising it. Currently, I’m working on a new novel, of which I wrote about 70.000 words in two months, only to then spend six months polishing up just the first chapter.
Perhaps things will be even more different in another ten years, once I’ve passed 40. Douglas Coupland didn’t say anything about that. When we met, he had only just turned 40 himself and he could have still been figuring out what that meant. That’s the thing, sometimes it takes experience for advice to make sense, which is why ten years later, Douglas Coupland’s words ring truer to me every day.